‘Meeting season’ starts as North Pacific council goes to Anchorage
The seafood business has two seasons — fishing and meeting — and meeting season is about to kick into high gear.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council begins its nine-day session Dec. 5 at the Anchorage Hilton, where it will revisit contentious halibut and Bering Sea crab issues, settle on 2012 groundfish harvest levels, continue its track of addressing chinook salmon bycatch by Gulf of Alaska trawlers and take final action to remove federal jurisdiction from state salmon fisheries.
December to March is typically referred to as “meeting season” with its packed schedule for state, federal and international regulatory bodies. The North Pacific council meets three times over the next four months, the Alaska Board of Fisheries will meet four times and the International Pacific Halibut Commission, or IPHC, holds its annual meeting Jan. 24 to 27 in Anchorage this year.
The most time on the agenda for the council is 12 hours dedicated to dealing with the halibut catch sharing plan after National Marine Fisheries Service punted it back to the council in an announcement Sept. 28 in Dutch Harbor at the last council meeting.
The NMFS decision to request more information from the council rather than addressing public comment and publishing the final rule in time to take effect in 2012 will require the council to offer recommendations to the IPHC for managing the charter sector absent the plan under current guideline harvest level (GHL) rules.
The catch sharing plan proposed rule was published July 22, and during the public comment period charter interests successfully pressed their arguments against it to achieve at least a temporary reprieve from implementation in 2012.
The charter sector in Southcentral was successful in delaying the CSP by repeatedly pointing to the potential for a one-fish bag limit under the current levels of biomass they argued would devastate their businesses and communities such as Homer, Seward and Valdez relied upon both by tourists and in-state anglers.
There are three agenda items related to halibut: the council will receive reports from the IPHC on proposed catch recommendations in 2012 and from Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports on sport harvest estimates; reviewing Charter Halibut Committee report on revising catch sharing plan provisions at low levels of abundance; and receiving a more specific report from NMFS on exactly what information it wants from the council to proceed to final rule.
The council does not intend to reopen the allocation percentages in the original CSP passed in 2008 by a 10-1 vote, and it has told the charter sector that any changes in management at low abundance would be a trailing amendment to the overall CSP.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt these issues will dominate public comment.
ADFG has released its 2010 estimates for charter harvest, and preliminary estimates for 2011. The 37-inch size rule put in place by the IPHC for the Southeast region this year held the charter sector to 390,000 pounds, well under its GHL of 788,000 pounds.
It was the first time since the GHL was put in place since 2004 that the Southeast charter sector has been under its allocation. Cumulatively, the sector has exceeded its allocation by some 3.4 million pounds since 2004.
The charter harvest for 2010 in Southcentral was estimated at 2.7 million pounds, well under its GHL of 3.65 million. The Southcentral charter sector has only exceeded its allocation once, in 2007. Between the two areas, the charter sector left 1.3 million pounds of fish in the water, which could provide dividends for a stock lacking large numbers of exploitable biomass.
Bering Sea crab stakeholder reports have eight hours on the agenda as the council continues to deal with problematic issues in the crab rationalization program identified during the five-year review in December 2010.
Rather than propose amendments to the crab rationalization program, the council tasked industry representatives of vessel owners and quota leaseholders with identifying ways to improve crew compensation and address excessive lease rates and active participation.
Ed Poulsen of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers has conducted eight workshops since last year to address the issues raised by the council. Poulsen manages the ICE Co-op, which represents some 70 percent of crab quota shareholders in the Bering Sea.
The workshops have resulted in ideas for a voluntary cap on Bristol Bay red king crab lease rates of 65 percent among ICE members, and a Right of First Offer program that would make 10 percent of any shares sold among ICE members available to crew.
Those proposals aren’t good enough for Shawn Dochtermann of the Crewman’s Association, which represents 170 skippers and crewmen with between 65 and 80 active in the crab fisheries and more than 2,500 years of combined fishing experience.
Dochtermann believes the owner-generated proposals for allowing crew to buy quota shares — which typically sell for five to six times the ex-vessel price — does nothing to improve crew compensation as directed by the council, nor does the proposed cap on rates among ICE members that would not apply across the fleet.
High lease rates charged by quota shareholders who no longer actively participate in the crab fishery are roundly blamed for cuts in crew compensation. For Bristol Bay red king crab, lease rates are 70 percent or more. For Bering Sea snow crab, the standard lease rate is 50 percent.
Crew received 35 percent to 40 percent of the vessel’s crab harvest after food, fuel and bait deductions prior to the 2005 rationalization.
The number of vessels contracted by some 170 boats in the first season of rationalization, wiping out more than 1,100 crew positions, and crew now receive between 15 percent and 20 percent of the vessel harvest.
Because they are fishing large amounts of leased crab quota, those crew who harvest the most Bristol Bay red king crab actually received around $6,000 less pay than fellow crew who harvested an average of 155,000 fewer pounds in 2008, according to the five-year review.
Dochtermann has suggested that crew should be paid as they were prior to rationalization, after standard deductions but before lease rates are charged. Some crew are also being charged the so-called “buyback tax,” which funds the repayment of a $100 million federal loan that bought out 25 crab vessels prior to rationalization.
Crew didn’t receive any of the quota that was bought back in that program, and shouldn’t be paying off the loan, Dochtermann said.
At its October meeting and over Poulsen’s objections, the council decided to consider collecting unique contracts and all settlement sheets for crew as part of its crab Economic Data Report program. Final action on that item is scheduled for the February meeting in Seattle.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.